The Best Books I Read in 2022

January is almost over, so I’d better post this before it’s too late! I’ve long wanted to do a “Best Books I’ve Read” post, but in past years, I’ve hesitated because, since my reading taste is so varied, it makes it difficult to compare books to one another. Still, as an avid reader, I want to recommend my favorites, especially since many of the books I enjoyed last year are less well-known than those you might find on other, similar lists.

Overall, I read 65 books last year, which was more than I read in 2021, though I read slightly fewer pages. Many of those books were 19th central novels, as I was doing researching for a major writing project. Related to the same project, I also reread all of the original Sherlock Holmes series, and, because of the Netflix adaptation, I reread the entire Sandman comics series as well. Many of the Holmes and Gaiman books would have made the list if this was the first time I was reading them, but I decided not to include them below. Also, while I thoroughly enjoyed each of these chunks of my reading list, it meant that I didn’t get to read as many contemporary books or books about writing craft/the creative life as I usually do. I intend to read more of these in the coming year, as well as to read more diverse authors, more poetry, and more non-fiction in the coming year.

I’ve divided the best books I’ve read into categories below to help you find what you’re most interested in reading.

Best Book I Read Last Year Overall: Fables, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Fables, by Robert Louis Stevenson

This lesser-known Stevenson book is a collection of short fables, which while they play off of traditional fables and fairy tales, are subversive in their intent. These stories, which vary in length, criticize people who blindly follow societal and religious conventions, flipping the traditional purpose of the instructive fairytale on its head. They are also read really modern for a book written so long ago, with some stories, like “The Person’s of the Tale” where characters from Treasure Island debate morality during a “break” between two chapters, bordering on the post-modern. The stories, as you might imagine from a master like Stevenson, are beautifully written, and I found the anti-groupthink message particularly relevant given the current social and political climate. There is also, an excellent podcast, Evening Under Lamplight, where Robert Louis Abrahamson reads and discusses each of the fables. He covers Stevenson in season 3, and if you are a fan of audiobooks, this may be the best way to consume Stevenson’s Fables.

Best Poetry Book I Read Last Year: Baseball Haiku: The Best Haiku Ever Written About the Game, edited by Cor Van Den Heuvel and Nathan Tamura.

Baseball Haiku book

I picked this one up on whim from a free giveaway table, in the snow, outside of a baseball card shop in Cooperstown. The store was about to close for the season, and was giving stuff away. This book includes a selection of both Japanese and American Haiku about baseball, including Jack Kerouac’s first haiku (super cool) and haiku by many historical Japanese masters. The poetry is excellent, but what really sets the book apart is Van Den Heuvel’s introduction which is, by far, the best introduction to haiku I’ve read. I learned so much both about the technical craft aspects of writing haiku and about the history of haiku in each country from his essay, and the information and analysis he provided enhanced my enjoyment of the poetry that followed.

Best Novel I Read This Year For The First Time: Daniel Deronda, by George Elliot

Daniel Deronda, by George Elliot

I read this book as part of my above-mentioned research. I was searching for a compelling female character from the second half of the 19th Century who survived until the end of her book (harder than it sounds, btw), and this book features two of them (no spoilers). Though I went into it for research purposes, I ended up really enjoying this book. It’s a big book, which we might expect from Elliot, and unlike her other books, it is set close to the time period in which she wrote. It reminded me of a Jane Austen book, but one which featured a double plot with a twist, similar to a Charles Dickens novel. If that’s your type of thing, you should check it out. It is also one of only two “classic” British books with a fair and sympathetic depiction of Jewish people, which I appreciated as a person of Jewish descent (the other being Ivanhoe). More so than other book in the canon, it gets the Jewish parts rights. The research into Jewish history and culture is impressive and accurate, which only added to my enjoyment.

Best Independent/Small Press Book: Dark Black, by Sam Weller

Dark Black, by Sam Weller

The first thing you will notice about this book is how beautifully it’s put together. Each of the gothic horror short stories is accompanied by a hauntingly exquisite black and white illustration. Beyond the presentation, the stories work. They are deceptively sparse, but linger long after they’ve been read. Weller is Ray Bradbury’s biographer, and clearly, he learned something from the great master’s early, gothic work.

Best Comic/Graphic Novel (Non-Reread Division): Barbalien–Red Planet, by Lemire, Brombil et al.

Barbalien—Red Planet

While this book is part of the Black Hammer universe, Barbalien is basically a self-contained story which you can read without having read the rest of the Black Hammer books. It is an original take on a superhero comic, and deals with the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. It deals with weighty issues like persecution against the gay community without being preachy, and somehow tells an entertaining story while dealing with a big, dark societal issues. The art is retro as well, right down to the number of panels on each page, which fits the story well. I always try to read at least one book from the New York Public Library’s Best Books of the previous year. (I started 2023 with the ambitiously original My Volcano, by John Elizabeth Stintzi), and Barbalien was a worthy selection on the 2021 list.

Best Non-Fiction Book: Dinosaurs in the Attic, by Douglas J. Preston

Dinosaurs In The Attic, by Douglas J Preston

I’ve been going to the American Museum of Natural History essentially since I was born. I know the museum like the back of my hand, and still enjoy going there. I picked up this book in the gift shop the first time I took my kids back to museum after the pandemic. It is essentially a narrative history of the museum’s founding and early history, and it not only taught me about the museum’s past, but made the experience of going to the museum after I read even more enjoyable. The sections about dinosaurs and gems are particularly good, but I also enjoyed the smaller anecdotes, such as the story of the chimpanzee whose stuffed body sits near the third floor bathroom outside of where one of the current temporary exhibition galleries lets out. That monkey used to run around the museum offices and ride its tricycle through the city!

Book That Helped My Writing Craft The Most: Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth, edited by Catherine Mcllwaine

The books which help my writing most aren’t always books about writing. A couple of years back, it was a book of interviews with the painter Joan Miro. This year it’s an exhibition catalog.

I often purchase the exhibition catalog when I particularly enjoy a show at a museum. Often, these books, while they are good reminders of the show, are, ultimately, disappointing, as something is lost in terms of scale and texture when the art is translated from the wall to the printed page. This is not an issue in this book, however, as the Bodleian traveling Tolkien exhibition this book is based on consists of largely of Tolkien’s manuscripts, letters, and ephemera. Tolkein’s watercolors and drawings also translate well to this format because they are generally on a smaller scale and do not rely on texture and brushstrokes as much as, say, a Van Gogh or a Jackson Pollack. Thus, this was one of the best exhibition guides I’ve read.

The reason it is on this list, however, is because of the scholarly and biographical articles which are included in this volume. Tolkien is my favorite writer, and the reason started writing myself, but I still learned a lot about his life and about his group The Inklings while reading this book. Moreover, there were articles which directly affected the way I approach my craft. These articles explored Tolkien’s use of language. I wrote about one of them here.


Well, that’s my list. What were some of your favorite books you read last year? Let me know in the comments.

Grow Toward Your Light

On a recent trip to Lancaster county, I saw a curious sight while visiting the Amish Farm with my family. An old mulberry tree grew across a river like a bridge. When I say across the river, I don’t mean that it’s branches grew over the river, but that its trunk grew horizontally rather than vertically, out into the middle of the river, about halfway across before the branches started growing upwards, perpendicular to the rest of the tree, toward the sky. It almost looked like the tree had been chopped down, except the roots grew—in a massive tangle—from the ground, and were still connected to the tree.

The mulberry tree described above

The sight of this tree brought me back to my childhood when I used to go camping with my father every June after school let out for the summer. Many of my fondest childhood memories occurred on those camping trips, and when I think about my father, who passed away in 2003, I often recall the things he taught me on those trips to the woods, and the wisdom and life lessons he imparted on those trips shaped the way I see and think about the world as much as anything else in my childhood.

The particular memory of this tree triggered was from one of our earliest trips. As a child who grew up in a largely urban environment, I was amazed by the trees in their natural setting in the state park in upstate New York where we went camping. What I noticed first was actually the roots (I was a city kid, and we’re taught from a young age that only tourists look up). The trees that I knew grew neatly on the edge of the sidewalk or in public parks. They were kept and pruned. Sometimes their roots would lift up sections of the sidewalk, which could trip you if you tried to ride your bike over them, but which for the most part, remained hidden, growing, properly, into the earth.

The roots I noticed were exposed. They grew in intricate tangles, gripping glacial rocks like the fingers of a giant, clawed hand. You could see roots as wide as branches growing down the rocky slope into the pond by which we ate breakfast each morning.

My father explained that the trees roots would grow to “find” water. If they could not penetrate the rock, they would grow around—or over it—stretching and striving to get to the water they needed to grow.

He then directed my gaze upward, pointing out the way they did a similar thing as they grew to get to the light, the other main thing they needed in order to survive. Young trees could not grow straight up, he said, because the older trees blocked out the light they needed to grow. If the tree was to survive, it would need to find the light, in any direction it could. Trees near the water would often grow in this fashion, as the airspace above the water was clear of the canopy of older trees, but you could see the trees twist and turn in interesting and unexpected shapes anywhere in the forest.

Looking up, I was awed by these wild trees. I found a beauty there which would inspire in me a Tolkien-esque love of trees. Others could have their beaches (which I always found boring) and their mountains. For me, the beauty of nature was best expressed in trees, especially in those twisted, mangled deciduous trees, seeking for sunlight, striving to survive.

The mulberry tree I saw a couple of weeks ago on vacation brought me back to this memory for obvious reasons. Though the tree on the farm grew in isolation, it is likely that at some point in its early life, it had to yield its airspace to other, older trees which have since been cut down. In this tree, I saw an extreme example of the phenomenon my dad pointed out all those years ago. The trunk grew parallel to the ground, low and over the river. It must have grown that way for years before its branches were able to reach upward toward the sky.

During this season of resolutions, let us look toward these trees. We live in a society which values progress and often assesses it by the extent to which it is linear. But life does not work that way. Everyone has their own, individual path, just as each tree must find its own way down toward the water and up toward the sun. Moreover, growth is not always linear. Sometimes, your trunk will have to go parallel with the ground—like the mulberry tree—or even go, temporarily, backward in its long and twisted pursuit of its goal. In a society which encourages us to chart growth and evaluates it by the shape of the plots’ steady slope up a graph, choose, instead, to emulate nature and embrace the unique patterns of the enchanted wood.

Grow toward your light, whatever direction that takes you.

Seven Books To Get To Know Me

The hashtag #7BooksToKnowMe is popular right now. I’ve decided to participate, but as usual, I’ve overthunk things. Rather than, as I’m sure was the original intent of the exercise, just listing seven books I like or that sum up my taste in reading, or, as many people seem to be doing, listing my seven favorite books, I intend to address the prompt as it is written. What seven books would help someone who didn’t know me, get to know me better. That list would be different from my seven favorite books, although their would be some overlap, because the list of my favorite books would include multiple books in the same genre (or even subgenre), while the list of the books to get to know me would be specifically chosen to showcase different aspects of my personality.

I have not included books directly related to the works I’m currently writing. While Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe have dominated my reading list recently, and while I love them both, I am not sure that would make the list once the projects on which I’m working is over.

This list is also a snapshot. Books that would have appeared on this list at other points in my life, like On The Road, The Watchmen, Wuthering Heights, Through the Looking Glass, A Storm of Swords, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch are not on this list. The books on this list might not be if I did this again a year from now, or even tomorrow.

With that preamble out of the way, here are my seven books to know me:

  1. Dune, by Frank Herbert: I first read Dune when I was in the 11th grade at the recommendation of my history teacher, Dr. Stone. I had asked him for a college recommendation, and he agreed, but wanted to meet me during a free period to get to know me outside of the class. He asked me what I liked to read, and when I told him I liked science fiction, he was flabbergasted that I hadn’t read Dune. It was, by far the greatest book recommendation anyone has given me. I read it and immediately loved it. I ended up writing one of my college application essays about it (in those days, there was no common app, and I wrote a total of 13 essays for the 11 schools to which I applied).

    Over the years, Dune has influenced nearly every aspect of my life. The philosophy of the book influenced me greatly at a time when I was figuring out the type of person I wanted to be, but in addition to that, lessons from the book affected other, less-obvious aspects of my life, ranging from the way I played basketball (not responding to a trash-talker unnerves the trash talker in any sport), to the way approached martial arts matches (to many lessons to list individually, but the Fremen made me a better fighter.) I still keep a file of Dune quotes all these years later, and with every re-read, I find more to add.
  2. The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkein: The Hobbit is the book that made me want to be a writer. I ordered in from the Scholastic Book Club in 7th Grade, and, while I was reading it, I thought, “hey, maybe the games I play with my castle Legos are actually stories people would want to read.” It is also a smaller story than The Lord of the Rings. The fate of the world isn’t at stake (at least we don’t yet know it is when we’re reading it). It concerns the fate of one group of dwarves and one particular hobbit. In my own work, I tend toward the small stories rather than the larger ones.

    Tolkien became my favorite writer, and The Lord of the Rings (which Tolkien thought of as one book) would be my desert island book, but if the point of the exercise is to get to know me, then The Hobbit is the one to read.
  3. Shoeless Joe, by WP Kinsella: This is the book that Field of Dreams is based upon. It is, in my opinion, better than the movie, and I love the movie (it’s the only movie which made me cry). The book is about baseball, and about fathers and sons. It reminds me of my father, who gave it to me before he passed. Much of my relationship with my father was based around sports, even when our fandom was a metaphor for other things which we may have been more reluctant to discuss. Sports have played a huge role in my life, and I have my father to thank for that too.
  4. Daniel Deronda, by George Elliot: Speaking of traditions and how they’ve influenced me, this is the book which addresses the traditions in which I was raised most thoroughly and most sympathetically. My reading tastes tend to the classics, but I was always bothered by the way the books–even the ones I loved–addressed Judaism. From Dickens, to Shakespeare, to Pyle, the negative stereotypes and outright slanders present in so much of Western literature always bothered me. There are a few books with sympathetic Jewish characters (Ivanhoe comes to mind), but none offer the depth and perspective of Elliot’s novel, which includes both religious and secular Jews, and addresses each character authentically without ignoring the prejudices which existed in society.
  5. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams: I considered putting Good Omens on this list, as it introduced me to both Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, two of my favorite authors, and two others whose books would be on my list of favorite books, but when I think about–and the fact that I’m rapidly running out of space on this list–I wouldn’t have read Good Omens if I hadn’t read The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. So why not just put Hitchhiker’s Guide on the list? Well, the thought did cross my mind. Adams introduced me to the dry, British wit and humor which has been such an influence on my life. But, he wrote other books too. Choosing a deeper cut in itself reveals an aspect of my personality. Moreover, I am running out of space, and I haven’t mentioned the Romantic poets yet. As this book features Coleridge, it will have to stand in for them as well.
  6. Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut: Kurt Vonnegut is another author who has been hugely influential on both my worldview and my writing. Slaughterhouse 5 was the first Vonnegut I read. I always admired his writing, which is simultaneously literary, speculative, and humorous. Some people say that Terry Pratchett does for fantasy what Douglas Adams did for science fiction. I have sometimes said that I hope my writing will, one day, have a similar relationship with Vonnegut’s.

    If you understand those last two sentences, you are probably my type of person.
  7. The Tao of Gung Fu, by Bruce Lee: My martial arts practice has been a major part of my life. I’ve been practicing since I was 8. I am drawn to the philosophical aspects as much as to martial practice. The Tao of Gung Fu includes Bruce Lee’s best essays about martial arts and Taoism, and should be essential reading for anyone who practices martial arts.

Looking back on this list, I feel like it’s a failure. While the selections do reveal aspects of my personality, I am remiss to have left out Ursula Le Guin, Charles Dickens, Gaiman and Pratchett, Poe, Marlon James, Colum McCann, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and so many others. While it’s an incomplete picture, hopefully it does, indeed, help you know me better.

Now it’s your turn. What are the seven book to get to know you better?

On Discipline

I had shoulder surgery back in 2010. I detached my labrum, got misdiagnosed, and then spent a full year doing the wrong kind of physical therapy which made my injury worse. When I finally was diagnosed properly, my shoulder was so messed up that the surgeon who fixed it told me I’d never be able to do a push-up again.

At the time, sports was a big part of life. I was doing martial arts three times a week, playing and coaching basketball, and going to the gym regularly. Needless to say, I was extremely frustrated by the way the injury was restricting me. One day, I expressed these frustrations to my chiropractor, who, in response, gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received: If you can’t do the best thing, it doesn’t mean you have to do the worst thing. If you can’t do the best thing, do the second best thing.

I might not be able to do certain exercises, but there were others I could do. Working on the chest press machine might not be great for my shoulder, but it wasn’t as harmful as push-ups; I might not be able to train in the style of martial arts I had been training in, but that didn’t mean I had to quit martial arts: I might not be able to rest as much as the doctors would have liked, but I didn’t have to push myself to the level I had pre-injury.

I think about that advice a lot.

There is a tendency among writers to have an all-or-nothing mindset. Write every day. Hit your word count, or else. Post x amount of times a day on social media. update your blog on weekly, on the same day, at the same time. Finish a full novel during nanowrimo. Aim for 100 rejections a year.

There is tendency to give up if we don’t achieve our goals. If we miss our word count one day, it tends to snowball. If we don’t write one day, we might not write for a few day (weeks?) as we wallow in shame and self doubt. If we don’t finish that novel in November, we put the project aside as a failure and to add it our ever-increasing pile of unfinished manuscripts.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Some days life happens. Some days, writers block happens. Can’t write your 750 words today, maybe only write 400, or 150, or 50. Can’t write at all today? Send out a submission or two. Do some research. Even read a book with a writer’s eye.

Only write 23000 words during nano? That’s 23000 words you didn’t have before. There’s no law that says you have to finish your novel by The end of November, or December, or the following November, or, if you’re George RR Martin, 10 years from now. Just don’t throw it away. Make incremental progress over time. Write many words some days, fewer words others.

That is what true discipline is. It’s not always doing the best thing, or even the second best thing. It’s about not doing the worst thing; not doing nothing. Will there be days you cheat on your diet? Yes. Will there be days you can’t train? Of course. Will there be days when you don’t write? That will happen too. The most important thing is to keep going, to make incremental progress over time. If you take two steps forward for every step back, you’ll reach your destination eventually.

Writers on Writing: New York Comic Con 2022 Edition

This past weekend, I attended New York Comic Con. While I did not have a table this year, which was unfortunate because I have a new book to sell (you can help me make for it by buying it here), I was able to attend the various professional panels aimed at writers. This year’s slate of high-profile writers was particularly strong, especially in the fantasy department were Terry Brooks, Brandon Sanderson, and Diana Gabaldon offered insights into their writing processes and careers. Below, I have collected the advice I found most helpful and interesting from both the top names and from the many other writers who paneled, and loosely organized that advice around a number of themes. I hope you find them as helpful and inspiring as I did.

Writing Process

Me and Brandon Sanderson

If you’re writing process isn’t working, then change your process–Chuck Wendig

When faced with an overwhelming amount of editorial feedback or critique, change something small. Changing something small reminds you that you have power over the piece–Peter V. Brett.

You can write a novel in a year writing 400 words a day. That’s about 1-1/2 double spaced pages–E. Lockhart.

The only feedback you get until you publish is that wordcount number adding up–Diana Gabaldon.

Who do you listen to? A really good editor. Anyone else, I’ll listen to an see if they have anything valuable to say, but you get a lot of feedback from people who don’t know anything. You’ve got to stand up for yourself–Terry Brooks.

The best feedback is from people who already like your work but who want something slightly better– (in my notes, but I didn’t write down who said it).

Take something you love and put it in a different context. I loved Faulkner. I wanted to put the way he dealt with class, the rich and poor, in a new element. Tolkien’s structure seemed like the perfect structure for that rich/poor dynamic–Terry Brooks.

Write out of order to avoid writing block. Move to a different part of the book, either to an exciting part or to an easy part–E. Lockhart.

I usually go through about 10 drafts–Karen McManus.

On writing comics: I write differently if I know the artist, if it’s an artist I’ve worked with before. If I’m workin g with a new artist, I’ll describe more—Jimmy Palmiotti.

Plotting vs Pansting

Terry Brooks giving me some writing advice.

I don’t write in straight lines. I don’t write with an outline either–Diana Gabaldon.

There is no such thing as plotting or pansting. Every writer does both. They are tools. If you don’t use both, you’re not using all the tools available to you as a writer–Brandon Sanderson.

I always start backward. I know the whydoneit and the whodoneit, and then plot backwards–Kara Thomas.

I tend to start with the big idea, but I’m not sure what it means–Karen McManus.

Plotting is like a Jenga tower. If you take one small thing out, the whole tower can collapse–E. Lockhart.

Character Development

The “Titans of Fantasy” panel l-r: Sanderson, Brooks, Gabaldon

We are all people. People make dumb decisions. It’s ok for characters dumb decisions because that’s what real people do. That makes characters feel real–Wesley Chu.

Sanderson’s second rule: flaws are more interesting than characters themselves–Brandon Sanderson.

I did what most writers do. I gave the character a flaw or two–E. Lockhart.

As the character’s power increases, their power becomes more evident–Brandon Sanderson.

I try to include “good” characters who have to deal with mental illness. Most of American media is like if there’s someone with a mental illness in your book, they’re probably the bad guy. We need to change that–Dan Wells.

I consider the antagonist and the villain as two separate characters: The villain is evil. The antagonist prevents the characters from getting what they want, but they should be relatable. We should be able to understand to understand them. Our main character could end up going in that direction. One example is Ms. Marvel. There are villains in that show, but the parents are the main antagonists. Another is Lord of the Rings. Sauron is the villain. He’s pure evil. Gollum is the protagonist, but what decisions got him there? We can see ourselves making those same decisions–Brandon Sanderson.

Villains don’t have to be villains from the start. They just have different agencies—Karen McManus.

Designing Plots

Meeting NYT #1 bestseller Wesley Chu, with whom I discussed writing Martial Arts.

The thing that bugs me most is repeated plot arc. Too many writers write the same plot over and over again. It’s as if, because they were successful with the first one, they just hit the reset button on book 2 (or series 2, or season 2) and write the same thing again–Brandon Sanderson.

The mystery needs to matter to the character, not just to the reader who is trying to figure out the mystery. There have to be character consequences for the reveal–Karen McManus.

Don’t have your conflict shoot your reader’s empathy for your character in the foot–Brandon Sanderson.

All mysteries have a reveal. Not all mysteries have a twist–Kara Thomas.

Point of View

Best Advice I’ve received as a writer panel w/ Chuck Wendig, Naomi Novak, Wesley Chu, Terry Brooks, Peter V. Brett

First person turns on how interesting the voice of the character is–Brandon Sanderson.

If you’re writing a scene, and you know it’s a good scene, and it’s an important scene, but it’s just not working out like it should, change the point of view. You’re probably writing it from the wrong perspective–Diana Gabaldon.

Writing Rules

Mystery/Thriller panel w/E Lockhart, Karen McManus, and Kara Thomas.

You should violate every rule–Terry Brooks.

The value of rules is that they make you look at your writing and analyze it in a technical way–Naomi Novak.

All writing rules are bullshit–Peter V. Brett.

But bullshit fertilizes–Chuck Wendig.

All writing rules amount to “don’t write badly.” They attempt to turn an art into a science–Naomi Novak.

Use writing rules like cooking, not baking. There are rules like ‘don’t dump in the whole package of salt’ and recipes are important when you start, but eventually you don’t have to follow the recipe exactly, unlike baking. You’re going to be tasting, adding more or less flavor according to preference. There is a preferential aspect, a matter of taste–Chuck Wendig.

50 years ago, the rules were different. 50 years from now, they’ll be different too. Trends come and go. What’s commercial comes and goes–Wesley Chu.

Pitching and Finding an Agent

How Not to Succeed in Comics Panel w/ Scott Snyder and Brian Azzerello

Querying sucks–Wesley Chu.

I was at a party once and an agent asked me what my book was about. I [was hesitant to share my book because of all the big authors he represented]. He told me “You don’t refuse books; I refuse books. If you want your book published, you have to put your work out there–Peter V. Brett.

I was trying to write to the market. It wasn’t until I wrote the books I wanted to read as teenager that I was able to sell my work–Karen McManus.

Reading

Joe Illidge at the Comic Book School Editors on pitching and professionalism panel.

Read outside your genre. Find the things that people do well in those other genres you love to read. They have skillsets and ideas we don’t have. Find out what they do and bring that into your own genre–Terry Brooks.

It’s not a matter of genre, it’s a matter of patterns–Diana Gabaldon.

You have to read mindfully and critically–Chuck Wendig.

Everything you read impacts you–Terry Brooks.

One of the things that makes us most worried as writers is that we’re going to copy someone else, and yet we’re an amalgam of all we’ve read and experienced. We need to look at what’s influenced us and tear it down to the emotions and then build it back up into something new–Brandon Sanderson.

General Advice

Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells

When you work with people you like, all of your bad decisions seem good–Brian Azzerello.

Writers need to experiment. Writing the same thing for a long time would be a mistake–Terry Brooks.

Find people who you can tell the truth to, and who will tell the truth to you–Scott Snyder

You’ve got tp challenge yourself. You can’t rest on your laurels–Terry Brooks.

On imposter syndrome: I picture myself reading my book in front of a whole crowd at Yankee Stadium, and 60 thousand people are going “boo!”–Scott Snyder.

Sometimes, the magic works–Terry Brooks.

Influence people in a positive way. Give them an experience in space and time–Terry Brooks.

In the final analysis, your work is your brand– Joe Illidge.

Humorous Comments

How do I title my book? Poorly–Dan Wells.

On giving a 5 minute answer to a lightning round question: Have you seen the size of my books? That was fast for me–Brandon Sanderson.

I enjoy the process of writing. Once it’s done, I couldn’t care less. Except for getting paid. I enjoy that–Terry Brooks.

——-

Final Thoughts

There was so much variety in the advice given at nycc this year. Each of the writers took their own path and some of them disagreed with each other. There is not one way to succeed, there are many. Find the advice that speaks to you and implement it. It is, ultimately, comforting to know that their are so many paths to success.

On Illustrated Poetry, Nick Offerman, and Following Your Dreams

The great Nick Offerman offers this gem of advice in his memoir: Paddle Your Own Canoe: Not everyone will like the cut of your jib, but many others will. One simply needs to seek those others and somehow trick them into buying tickets to your production of Gangsta Rap Coriolanus.”

This colorfully worded sentiment goes against much of the advice offered to aspiring creatives, which involves things like chasing trends, researching the right key words and hashtags, and writing to the market.

While I would never advise a creative not properly research the market, there is, too, a value, in making the weird thing you want to make, market and trends be damned. Make the weird thing. Find your people. Create your own market.

I found Offerman’s words particularly inspiring as I read them just as I was preparing to release my book Into That Darkness Peering, a collection of gothic horror poetry and flash fictions, written by me and illustrated by Marika Brousianou.

This book, which just came out last week, is comprised of fully-illustrated, stand alone pieces. It is an illustrated book, but not for children. It is not really a straight poetry or fiction collection, but it’s not a graphic novel either. I was really hard to choose categories and key words for it on Amazon and Lulu.

What it is, is really cool. It came out beautifully, and, yes, it is the perfect time to release a book of gothic horror tales. right on time for Halloween.

I’ll drop a few sample images at the bottom of the post, and if you want to check it out, the book is available on Amazon in print and electronic formats. It is also enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, so you can read it for free if you subscribe to that service.

It may not be gangsta rap Shakespeare, and I may not be Nick Offerman, but I hope you, my own band of miscreants and weirdos, will give it a chance and buy it.

My Ultimate Fantasy Questing Party

Last week, I promised to reveal my ultimate fantasy questing party. The rules of the exercise were covered in that post, but to summarize the rules for this exercise briefly, the party must consist of nine members (like the fellowship in Lord of the Rings), be selected from fantasy literature (books, including comics, not movies, tv, or other mediums), and consist of only one member from each book or series (no doubling, Gandalf and Samwise could not both be included, for example). The party would go on a hypothetical high-fantasy quest, involving magic (rather than technology). It was a more difficult task than I thought, and it taught me a lot about the types of characters to which I gravitate. (Apparently, I am a big fan of talking animals. Who knew?) It was a fun exercise, and I encourage those of you who have not yet tried it to do so, and to post your traveling parties in the comments.

A few notes before I reveal the members of my questing team:

–There were some difficult decisions, some of which I explain in the comments. When unsure of which character to include, I often considered the role the character would play within the group: hero, mentor, muscle, friend, foil, etc. My team would have a better chance to succeed if all of these traditional roles were covered.

–I also considered team chemistry. How would the members interact with each other? Who might like or work well with whom? Who would, potentially, not get along? Who would improve the party’s moral in the tough times, etc. Ultimately, these questions are subjective, but then again, so is this entire exercise.

–I only included characters in series that are completed. Therefore, though I love many characters in Marlon James’ Dark Star trilogy, the series is not yet complete, and therefore I have not included any characters from either of the first two books. I do not know what will happen to those characters, so I cannot yet include them. Same for George RR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice (remember we are dealing with books exclusively, not the TV program).

–I also did not include any characters from series with which I, personally, have not yet finished reading. For example, I came late to NK Jemisin, and am in the middle of her Broken Earth series. I loved the first book. It was one of the most literary fantasy novels I’ve read in a good long while, but I have not finished it, and therefore I do not know the fate or development of the characters. The fault is mine, but, alas. Maybe my list will change in a few years.

–I strongly considered both Sherlock Holmes and Abraham Van Helsing. Each of these characters would be brilliant on a quest, however, neither really comes from a fantasy novel, even though Van Helsing does come from a speculative novel.

–The most difficult omission for me was Dune. Though there are many fantasy elements in Dune, ultimately it is more of a scifi universe than a fantasy one. Thus, no Paul, no Gurney, no Lady Jessica, no Stillgar, etc.

–My final cut, so to speak, was Sir Tristan. Le Morte de Arthur is the godfather of the genre, but I decided to stick to more modern titles.

–It goes with out saying that these choices are based on the original, literary depictions, not any of the versions from various adaptations.

Without further ado, here are my nine:

Iorek Byrnison (His Dark Materials): An armored polar bear is the ultimate enforcer for my traveling party. He is strong, principled, and though he does manifest a daemon, he has as much soul as anyone. He also has smithing skills, which will come in handy. Iorek is the ultimate protector for my hero, and even though it meant I couldn’t include Lyra, including him was an easy choice.

Lucy Pevensie (Narnia): She will be the young heroine of the quest. I’ve been reading the Narnia books with my 8 year old daughter at bedtime each night, and rereading the books as an adult, it is clear to me that Lucy is the best character in the series. She is brave, smart, and true. She is willing to stand up to and go against her older siblings when she knows that she’s right, and yet she’s humble and isn’t seeking power. She also possesses a magical healing potion, which will certainly come in handy on any quest.

Tenar (Earthsea): It takes a lot to give up power, to go against the conventions of society in the name on right, to abandon the only traditions and systems you have known–the very systems that have brought you power–to do what your conscience says is right. Tenar does all of these things. This was a tough one for me, as I really wanted to use Ged Sparrowhawk as my wizard, but there are many great wizards throughout fantasy literature. There is only one Tenar.

Samwise Gamgee (The Lord of the Rings): The ultimate friend. Sometimes the obvious choice is the right one.

Belgarath the Sorcerer (The Belgariad, etc.): Perhaps some of you can relate to this: There was a writer whose books were essential to my falling in love with fantasy. I read all of their books in high school, mostly as they were being published. It was just the second fantasy series I read. It fanned the flames of my nascent ideas about wanting to be a writer. Later, as an adult, I found out some very disturbing things about the author. I try to separate my nostalgia for the books from my opinion of the person who wrote them. No, it’s not the one who immediately springs to mind for most of you. It’s David Eddings. Anyway, Belgarath is just as powerful as any other classic wizard. He has the same types of powers, and generally fits the archetype, but he’s more down to earth and fun. You’d rather have a beer with him than with Gandalf, for example.

The Fox (The Little Prince): “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” ‘Nuff said.

Lu Tze, The Sweeper (Discworld): There are many fine choices across Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Sam Vimes would probably be the most popular with his blend of street smarts and combat experience, but Angua the Werewolf, DEATH, Granny Weatherwax, or even Rincewind (sometimes running is the best option) would make fine choices as well. Ultimately, Lu Tze is my choice. He is a 6000 year old Time Monk who does not hold rank in the hierarchy of the order. He just sweeps floors (hence The Sweeper). Yet those who know, know his kung fu–snafu to be precise–is better than anyone else’s. He is irreverent as well and would make a fine mentor and foil for Belgarath. Anyone who disagrees should remember rule number one.

Inigo Montoya (The Princess Bride): Book Inigo is much like the movie version, except there is way more background about his father in the book (which is at least as hilarious and awesome as the movie). A skilled sword master should balance out the fighting skills in the party. With Iorek as the brute strength, The Sweeper as the unarmed combat specialist, and Inigo as the skilled swordsman, all phases of battle are covered. Also, much like Samwise, Lucy, Tenar, etc, Inigo is principled as well.

Door (Neverwhere): The last choice is always the hardest. I had planned on including a character from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I’ve been doing a reread since the show came out, and it is reminding me of how much I love that particular fantasy framework. The question is, who to pick. Dream is right out. He would get bored and leave. He prefers to quest alone. Death has other responsibilities. My favorite character in the series is Hob Gadling, but while he does bring a wealth of experience, I don’t think he quite fits. I would have loved to include Barnabas, Destruction’s sarcastic talking dog, but that seems like overkill the way my party is currently constructed. We already have two other talking animals. Destruction himself is really interesting. He has abandoned his position in the Endless, and is living as a mortal, almost. He writes poetry, paints, and cooks. He seems like a good guy, and everyone seems to get along with him. The problem is that as the embodiment of destruction, destruction follows him around. People die. Things get destroyed. We don’t need that hanging over the quest. Therefore, I decided to pivot to another Gaiman work, Neverhwere. Door has the ability to open and create doors. That is a skill that will no doubt come in useful on a quest.

So, how did I do? Let me know in the comments.

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Who is your Ultimate Fantasy Questing Party (Part 1)?

With the release of Prime Video’s Rings of Power, I’ve been rereading a lot of Tolkien recently. Tolkien was the writer who first sparked my interest in writing, and hanging out in Arda, whether in the pages of his books or through the portal of an onscreen adaptation, always leaves me wiser and happier than I was before. Revisiting Middle Earth has also reminded me of one of the great debates I used to have with my nerdy friends (such as they were) in my youth: If you had to pick the ultimate fantasy traveling party to go on a magic-filled quest, who would you include?

A couple of ground rules:

  1. For the purposes of this exercise, we are going to assume that you are building your party to go on a traditional fantasy quest, like the one described in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Your quest will consist of an epic, episodic adventure, involve a magical object, feature a mentor, etc. A nefarious, evil entity will try to thwart you, and you will probably lose at least one companion along the way. There will be magic. There will be monsters. Your hero will change over the course of the journey. The FATE OF THE WORLD will be at stake.
  2. For the purpose of this exercise, your party will consist of nine. Why nine? First, because we need an equal number for the sake of comparison and evaluation. If every party is the same size, the game is fair. Why nine specifically? Any number would, technically, do, but we’ll go with nine in honor of the nine walkers in the Lord of the Rings. These things tend to be traditional.
  3. The members of your traveling party MUST originate in a fantasy novel or series of novels. Graphic novels are ok for the purpose of this exercise; TV shows and movies are not (use the books upon which they were based).
  4. You may only choose one character from each book or series. Choose wisely. If you choose Gandalf, you will not be able to also include Samwise Gamgee. If you choose Hermione, no Harry Potter, etc.
  5. We’re using traditional high fantasy as our setting. Magic is ok; technology is not.
  6. Consider the different archetypes traditionally found on a fantasy quest. You need not use all of them, but they exist for a reason. A party of Gandalf, Ged Sparrowhawk, Dumbledore, etc, might seem really powerful and cool, but there is a reason why we don’t see many such parties in fantasy novels. Who will play the role of the mentor? The hero? The muscle? Which characters will be able to use magic? Which will not?

I will post my answer next week in this space. Truthfully, the members of my party will likely change many times between now and then. In the meantime, please put yours in the comments. I might even include some in next week’s blog. I look forward to hearing your ideas.


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In Honor of Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie signing a book

Like everyone else, I am shocked and appalled by what happened to Salman Rushdie this past week. Not only is Rushdie one of the greatest living authors, he is also a champion of free speech and a model of principled bravery in the face of real danger. He is also one of my favorite writers.

If you only know Rushdie from his most famous and controversial work, The Satanic Verses, you should check out some of his other work as well. The booker-winning Midnight’s Children is, deservedly, his most highly regarded novel (and probably the right place to start if you are a Rushdie novice), but my favorite is Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which masquerades as a children’s fantasy book, but is actually about the dangers of censorship.

I’ve also learned a lot as a writer from Rushdie, who, in his melding of Eastern and Western traditions, often breaks a lot of so-called “rules” of writing. Here is a blog I wrote about his used of adverbs back in 2021.

Blog post on Rushdie and Adverbs

Please join me in wishing Rushdie a speedy recovery. Get well soon.

Process and Perfection in Matisse’s Red Studio

Last week, I saw the Matisse’s Red Studio exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. The show features the painting after which it is named, but also focusses on the artist’s other works, especially those featured in the Red Studio painting. It is a really good exhibition and I enjoyed it immensely as an art lover. I also learned a lot about Matisse’s creative process, and as I often do when examining another creative’s method, found things I can incorporate into my own writing process.

The MOMA’s gallery cards are exceptional. Instead of just listing the name of the piece, the artist, and the medium like most museum’s do, the labels which accompany the art at the MOMA often include full paragraphs about the work which contextualize the piece and give some insight into both the importance of the work and, when known, the artist’s process or artistic vision.

One can learn a lot by reading the cards. For example, I learned that not only was Matisse a tinkerer, he often left vestiges of the original, or drafting, stages of his work in the final piece when he revised. Take, for example, this painting.

The position of the leg was obviously changed, which can be seen in the extraneous line near the lower half of the extended leg. There is also evidence that Matisse tinkered with the position of the figure’s arm (on the same side of the body), which he attempted to disguise in the shadows.

Here is the same painting with the relevant areas highlighted.

In many of the other paintings, the viewer can see pencil lines, presumably from the sketches he made on the canvass before he started to paint. They are not noticeable at the distance from which one usually photographs a painting, but up close, you can see them clearly. Here is an example:

What struck me most about these pieces was not that Matisse revised so much as part of his process. The world of the writer–and I assume the artist as well–is oversaturated with advice about revising one’s work. Revision is part of the process and it is par for the course. Rather, what stood out to me was that these vestiges remained in the final piece.

Many writers, many artists, many creative people in general, will work on their pieces in a futile pursuit of perfection. I have been guilty of doing so myself, working on a piece right up until the deadline, trying to make it as perfect as possible before submitting it for publication. I make sure to give myself deadlines, to seek out open call with hard deadlines, and rarely self-publish because I often get in my own head about revision.

There is an old saw in the creative world, “Finished, not perfect,” and like most oft-repeated advice it has become cliché and, in doing so, has lost much of its impact. It’s something people say, post about on social media, and hang up on posters in their classroom, and then ignore when it comes to their own practice. Seeing the Matisse pieces on the wall–and reading the gallery cards–is much, much more impactful.

Because, here’s the thing: No one notices the mistakes when looking at the paintings on the wall. Those who did not take the time to read the gallery cards, most likely, did not notice them at all. I certainly did not until I after the labels pointed them out to me. As someone who sees every mistake in everything I write, even–and especially–after its published, there’s a powerful lesson in that.


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